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American: The Bill Hicks Story

Director duo Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas release a documentary on the late American comedy genius Bill Hicks. Dazed Digital finds out why...

Fiercely intelligent, passionate and often controversial, Bill Hicks is frequently described as the comedian’s comedian. Since his premature death in 1994 he has gained a cult underground following. This month two British directors, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, release their documentary 'American: The Bill Hicks Story', which presents a rare insight into the comedian. It includes interviews with Hicks’ closest family and friends which paint a picture of a satirist whose work is as pertinent now as it has ever been. Digital spoke to both directors about the life of a comedy genius...
Dazed Digital: There have been other films about Bill Hicks - how did this project come about and why now?
Matt Harlock: Although this is our first feature, Paul [Thomas] had been making TV comedy and entertainment shows for the BBC and Channel 4 for many years, and I had been making drama for British TV and developing feature scripts. We’d both been looking to do something a bit more substantial and meaningful when this project came along.
Paul Thomas: Matt had done a London tribute night for Bill, and as well as uncovering some rare and unseen footage, had got to know the Hicks family. It was at that point that we met and realised that the amazing life story of this groundbreaking comedian had never fully been told. Using our TV background, we began formulating ways to tell Bill’s story.
Matt Harlock: The timelessness of Bill’s comedy means he is more relevant now than ever. We felt that, with 16 years since Bill’s death and the Daily Show, Colbert Report and others, that attitudes had changed regarding what is acceptable to publicly discuss, meaning that perhaps Bill might now have a chance of gaining the wider mainstream recognition he deserves in America. Although there had been another short documentary of Bill available here in the UK, it was made shortly after he died, so it didn’t have the luxury of the perspective that the past 16 years have given us ­ that Bill is someone who’s not going away, and in fact is getting more popular with each passing year as more and more people find out about him.
DD: You take a novel approach visually, instead of the usual talking heads you use a distinct style of animation - how did this come about?
Paul Thomas: As Bill’s story was so unique, the challenge was in finding a strong enough new way to tell it. We knew there was a huge archive of photos of Bill and so the idea of an animated photographic storytelling approach arose, eschewing talking heads and allowing the viewer to be fully immersed into the world of the characters, much closer in form to a narrative method. Little did we know that this choice would take our every spare penny and waking moment over the next four years of our lives!
DD: Hicks' close family and friends are featured prominently - was it difficult to secure their support for the film?
Paul Thomas: It was hard work getting everyone to agree. We had a wish list but it took a lot of persuading. It was very personal and he was a very special friend to people. It was hard and emotional for people so there was a lot of hesitation. Basically, Bill’s mum contacted everyone and told them that she was going to do the interview and that this film was ‘the one’.
Matt Harlock: But the other thing which qualifies these people to be the interviewees was Bill was a person who had lifelong friendships. He met Dwight [Slade], one of his best friends throughout his life, when he was eight years old. The people he had relationships with were the people that could constantly give the parts of the story that mattered throughout Bill’s life.
DD: What was the atmosphere like whilst recording these interviews?
Paul Thomas: Each interview lasted several days and to make the interviewees as comfortable as possible, we visited everyone in their own homes and filmed with minimal lighting set ups and no additional crew. This gave us flexibility and a relaxed intimacy in taking each interviewee back through often emotional memories at their own pace. Over two months we shot 120 hours of interviews and uncovered over 1300 unseen photographs. It was clear the same process wouldn’t happen again and that this would be the last chance to create a definitive historical record of Bill’s life and story.
DD: Did you learn anything about Hicks that surprised you or that you hadn't appreciated before you started making the film?
Matt Harlock: What emerged was a vivid personal telling of Bill’s story, as the interviewees recalled his life’s journey with an astonishingly vivid recall and clarity. There was just an obvious difference between the Bill performer and Bill the man ­ offstage Bill was quiet, didn¹t shout or wear black all the time ­ he was still intense but what the interviewees gave us was the personal side. Hearing Bill himself aged 18, alone in LA and talking into a Dictaphone about how scared he was that he wasn’t funny, what if he didn’t make it, gives everyone who sees it new insight into who he was onstage.
DD: Was there anyone you would like to have featured in the film that you were unable to?
Matt Harlock: Dennis Leary and Jay Leno both declined to appear in the film. As did Rush Limbaugh, oddly.
DD: How have you found the reception to the film so far?
Paul Thomas: The reactions at the 12 festivals we have played so far have been amazing. London Film Festival was where we found out that the film worked with an audience, and many people were in tears at the end. Then taking the film to America was the next big step, and again we were amazed. South by South West in Austin has a big Bill following, and we filled the 1200 seat Paramount Theater - twice!
Matt Harlock: We had some amazing reviews - the buzz around the film was unbelievable, everyone was talking about Bill and Ain’t It Cool and gave the film raves... Since it has played Dallas, Houston and Boston, and tomorrow we head to Toronto HotDocs, the biggest doc festival in the world ­ so far the indications are good.
DD: Do you think it will attract newcomers to his work as well as old fans?
Matt Harlock: The most gratifying part of presenting the film is having people who hadn’t heard of Bill come up to us and say “How could I not have known of this person?” That reaction is pretty common amongst those new to Bill, and we know the film is definitely not just for fans.
Paul Thomas: Bills’ life story is the amazing journey of an artist who struggled against huge odds, personal and external, to get his voice heard, and 16 years later, more and more people are listening. We hope the film is part of that.
DD: Do you have a favourite Bill Hicks sketch?
Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas: Difficult question! Bill’s best work wasn’t really sketches or punch lines, it was crafting a journey where ideas get turned on their heads and the laugh leaves you with a new way of looking at the world.
American: A Bill Hicks Story is released in cinemas on 14 May 2010.